Danziger Bridge, New Orleans, July 2010 (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Witness testimony began Monday in a trial that has already shocked and polarized the city of New Orleans and brought urgent calls for reform of the city's entire criminal-justice system.

In an incident on Sept. 4, 2005, days after the storm, police officers are accused of raining a hail of bullets on two African-American families as they were fleeing Katrina's floodwaters. Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, was shot at least six times, while James Brissette, a high school student, was shot seven times. Both died at the scene. Four others were wounded, including a woman whose arm was shot off and a young man who needed a colostomy bag after the shootings.

Advertisement

The officers on trial are accused of engaging in an elaborate effort to cover up what happened by arresting innocent civilians, falsifying reports, conspiring in secret meetings, inventing witnesses and planting evidence. Three officers who were involved in the shooting and two officers who aided in the conspiracy have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their fellow officers.

The trial is expected to last eight weeks. The officers involved in the shooting — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon — could receive life sentences if convicted. Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was not on the bridge, is charged only in the cover-up and could receive a maximum of 120 years. Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who is also implicated only in the cover-up, will be tried separately, in September. He faces 70 years.

Defense attorneys for the accused officers have said that the officers were shot at before they began firing. The attorneys have also pointed to the chaos and confusion of post-Katrina New Orleans as a contributing factor. NOPD spokespeople and officials in the Police Association of New Orleans have distanced themselves from the accused officers while refusing to comment in depth. "We have faith in our legal system," NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden told The Root, "and are confident that those who are found guilty of committing crimes will be sanctioned accordingly."

Advertisement

The story is devastating. For more than three years, every check and balance in the city's criminal-justice system failed. Activists complain of judges who are too close to prosecutors; a city coroner who sides with the police version of events; and an entire system that seems focused on locking up people for misdemeanors instead of stopping violent crime.

"We have an opening at this point," says Malcolm Suber, project director for the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, and a longtime activist against law-enforcement violence. "But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again."

The shootings on Danziger Bridge are the most notorious of at least nine separate incidents — most of which occurred in the days just after Katrina — that are being examined by federal agents. "This trial is going to show the country and the world that we have a serious problem with our police department," says Eddie Jordan, the city's former district attorney. "This department is engaged in horrendous acts against its citizens."

Official Responsibility

In a wide-ranging 158-page report released this March, the U.S. Justice Department declared that the NOPD has deep structural problems, noting, "Basic elements of effective policing — clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry — have been absent for years." The report criticized the department for "use of excessive force; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; racial and ethnic profiling and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) discrimination; a systemic failure to provide effective policing services to persons with limited English proficiency; and a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence."

Jordan feels that investigators should pursue charges up to the very top of the department, including Warren Riley, who was promoted to police chief shortly after Hurricane Katrina and served in that role until 2010. "Riley, by his own admission, never even read the report on Danziger," Jordan points out. "It's so outrageous, it's unspeakable. It's one of the worst things that anyone can do. It's hard to understand why he's not on trial as well.

"Fish starts rotting at the head," adds Jordan. "This was all done in the backdrop of police opposition at the very top. It's not surprising that there was a cover-up. You just have to wonder how far that cover-up went."

Riley, who resigned in 2010, has said that any officers involved in a cover-up should go to jail. He has also defended his response to NOPD corruption, saying that he inherited a deeply troubled department and a civil service system that protects bad officers. "I've fired 178 police officers in 4 1/2 years," he told radio host Gerod Stevens shortly before he retired. "I've suspended over 600."

Advertisement

A recent scandal involving the NOPD's "paid detail" system, in which some officers are able to double their salary by working in private security and other outside jobs, implicated friends and family members of Ronal Serpas, the current police chief. Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo, the second in charge of the department, is currently being investigated by the NOPD's internal affairs division for his role in stifling investigation of the Henry Glover case, in which five New Orleans police officers were accused of shooting the 31-year-old, burning his body and then engaging in a cover-up.

Defillo and Riley are both expected to be called to testify in the Danziger case, as is Eddie Compass, who was police chief at the time of Katrina and is now the head of security for the district that covers most of New Orleans' public schools.

Even representatives of the NOPD admit that the police department has a long way to go. While calling the Danziger incident "a tragic event from the past," Braden told The Root that Superintendent Serpas "inherited a fundamentally flawed department … It will still take significant time to change the foundation."

The Problem Goes Beyond Police

Criminal-justice reformers say that the Justice Department investigations, which have focused mostly on the NOPD, don't go far enough. According to Rosana Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people, any discussion of changing the city's criminal-justice system must include Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail. "The prison has played a key role in all of this," she says. "We need to think about public safety from an actual safety perspective, not an incarceration perspective."

Advertisement

A September 2009 investigation by the Department of Justice documented "a pattern and practice of unnecessary and inappropriate use of force by OPP correctional officers," including "several examples where OPP officers openly engaged in abusive and retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to prisoners." The investigation also found instances in which "the officers' conduct was so flagrant it clearly constituted calculated abuse."

Activists have also called for an investigation of Judge Raymond Bigelow, a prosecutor-turned-jurist who has close relationships with the attorneys for the Danziger cops. Bigelow dismissed state charges against the cops in 2008 and retired soon after.

The city's elected coroner, Frank Minyard — an 81-year-old jazz trumpeter who previously worked as a gynecologist — has also been a focus of public criticism. Minyard's office didn't classify Glover's body — which was found, burned, in a car with its skull missing — as a potential homicide. Minyard also attributed the death of Raymond Robair, allegedly beaten to death by officers, as the result of having "fallen down." These cases helped inspire an investigation by PBS's Frontline, along with calls from the editorial board of the Times-Picayune for his resignation.

Advertisement

Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a legal and advocacy organization, agrees that systemic change is necessary, including reform at the district attorney's office. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who was elected in 2008, has taken over an office that has long faced accusations of racism and illegal activity, says Kaplan.

Connick v. Thompson, a case of prosecutorial misconduct that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court this year, "made it clear there was an endemic level of corruption in the prosecutor's office," she says. Under former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office "failed to do what its stated mission is," Kaplan adds. "But [it] also contributed to corroding the public trust in law enforcement. And it will be a long time before they can regain that trust." Cruz of V.O.T.E. agrees and says that the problems in the office persist. "For the D.A.'s office, it is about the number of convictions. Safety is secondary."

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro, says that public distrust in the criminal-justice system is real. "We see the effects of that on a daily basis in criminal court. When we question jurors, there are jurors that say they don't trust the police."

Advertisement

However, says Bowman, positive changes have already taken hold in the NOPD as well as in the district attorney's office, which he says has instituted important changes since Cannizzaro took over. "You have to look at an entire criminal-justice system that is reforming itself," he says.

For the officers on trial, much will depend on whether the jury believes that Katrina represented an extraordinary circumstance that excuses violent behavior, a defense that former District Attorney Jordan has no patience for. "A storm does not make law-enforcement officers go out and kill people," he declares, "and that's the excuse they're using. They are saying water is on the streets and the city is shut down, and so normal rules do not apply."

Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based journalist, is the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org.